Spotlight on Body for 21st year

By Meghan Keyes

At The Art Institute of Chicago and Orchestra Hall on Nov. 11, 1990, an audience of 3,500 gathered for the Chicago Humanities Festival, a one-day symposium. Now in its 21st year, the festival focuses on this year’s topic, “The Body,” and the festival expects 38,000–39,000 attendees.

“The aim of the festival is to make the humanities experience accessible to as wide an audience as possible,” said Jara Kern, associate director of marketing and communications for CHF. “Each year’s theme explores the different facets of how that theme is reflected in or reflective of the humanities, spanning all disciplines and ways of looking at the world.”

According to Kern, the CHF is the largest humanities festival in the world, with approximately 95 events spanning 14 days. A few events were on Oct. 24, but the main events were from Nov. 2 to Nov. 14. It is held every year. It began with a partnership between The Art Institute, University of Illinois at Chicago, Lyric Opera of Chicago, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and the University of Chicago.

The 18 venues are located in the downtown area and on the U of C campus in Hyde Park. Kern said most of the audience is Chicago-based, but it also draws attendees from downstate and out-of-state.

“We bring a curious arts and culture audience to different spaces in Chcago,” Kern said. “We also highlight folks who are from and of Chicago. … We also bring people of a high stature into Chicago.”

The festival offers all its events at prices ranging from $5 to $28 and these are heavily discounted for students and teachers.

“It’s great Chicago is recognizing the humanities,” said Martha Nussbaum, an author who lectured on Nov. 10. “I think humanities are under attack all [across] world; they are considered useless. I think they add essential ingredients to the culture of democracy.”

One of the biggest sponsors is the McCormick Foundation, which gave CHF $200,000 throughout the course of two years.

“The Foundation has continued Col. Robert R. McCormick’s tradition of supporting the city he loved by funding the Chicago Humanities Festival and its efforts to provide a rich multicultural learning experience for children and adults in Chicago,” said Anna LauBach, director of special initiatives at McCormick and overseer of the grant.

Other sponsors include the Terra Foundation for American Art, which has provided funds for a lecture about American art each year since 2006.

“It’s a wonderful event in Chicago and we thought it’d be a great opportunity to let people learn more about American art,” said Jenny Siegenthaler, program officer of education programs for the Terra Foundation. “We’re very happy to support programs that make American art relevant for general audiences.”

A variety of events are offered at the festival, ranging from lectures by NBA legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Dan Savage, founder of the “It Gets Better” campaign, to dance performances, concerts and tours of galleries in the West Loop.

“The range of artistic experiences we offer within a concentrated space and time makes it really unique,” Kern said. “You can get a sample of the city at the same time as a sample of what we’re offering.”

Nussbaum’s lecture was called “From Disgust to Humanity” and addressed the reaction of disgust when confronted with same-sex relationships.  As a lecturer, Nussbaum said the festival was wonderfully put together and she loved it.

“The audience was larger than I expected and they were very enthusiastic with questions,” Nussbaum said. “I stayed around and talked to people. I was very impressed with how organized they were.”

The festival continues in the spring and will, for the first time, include events in the festival’s “off season” between February and June.

“We want to keep our audience engaged year-round,” Kern said. “It’s a true festival.”